During Disaster Coverage, Be Sure to Monitor Social Media at All Times

By Dan Shelley, RTDNA Director at Large

Hurricane Sandy will go down in history as one of the worst storms ever to wreak havoc across the Northeast.

It will go down in history, perhaps, as an "October Surprise" that impacts the presidential election.

And it will go down in history as the greatest storm ever covered best by social media, at least so far.

As millions of people clamored for information. As millions of people lost power. As millions of people tried their best to keep up with what they needed to know to remain safe, hundreds of thousands — if not millions — used social media to share information, often long before they could get it from traditional media outlets.

I say that not to knock traditional media in any way. Without question, the men and women who risked life and limb, and endured other immeasurable sacrifices, to cover the storm for the rest of us deserve every bit of praise they’re now starting to receive. And I say that with just a little bit of credibility.

In my journalism career I chased dozens of storms, including more tornadoes than I can remember. I found bodies in the rubble of storms. I saw millions, if not billions, of dollars in damage. Throughout the years I have participated in, watched, listened to and read more storm coverage than any 12 people should ever have to participate in, watch, listen to or read.

It just so happens that because of where I am in my career nowadays, I was able to observe Sandy coverage without actively participating in it, as millions of others in the affected area did. And in this age of Facebook and Twitter and other social networks, I have to say that more often than not, I got first word of relevant, breaking information from official sources and just plain folks alike who posted and tweeted there, often quite some time before the information was relayed by the traditional media.

This is not new. In January 2009 I was working at the CBS Broadcast Center on the west side of Manhattan, less than two blocks from the Hudson River. It was on Twitter — not from any of the dozens of excellent electronic journalists at work in the very same building — where I first learned that US Airways Flight 1549 had just made an emergency landing on the river.

But never had I seen the scale and breadth of breaking information on social media that I saw during Sandy.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.), Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.), Mayor Mike Bloomberg (I-New York), Con Edison, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and other government and public service officials and agencies churned out tweets and posts by the dozens each hour. That’s where I first learned ConEd was going to shut off power to Lower Manhattan as a preventative measure. It’s where I first learned which bridges and tunnels into Manhattan would be closed. It’s where I first learned a myriad of other vital details that helped me weather the storm.

I could tell which traditional media outlets were monitoring social media, and which weren’t. The ones that were reported the tweeted and posted information quickly and accurately. The ones that weren’t didn’t, and as a result were minutes if not hours behind with the latest information. Digitally savvy news operations also made great use of their own social network accounts, tweeting and posting to their followers information they had developed.

To their credit, virtually every media outlet I monitored during Sandy engaged with their audiences by requesting and publishing or broadcasting photos and videos from the public. That’s necessary, but it’s so 2006. In other words, everybody does it now. But clearly not everybody uses social media to its fullest extent.

The lesson from Sandy hammered home for me about covering natural disasters: Assign someone to monitor social media at all times. Verify the information. Then report it on every platform at your disposal — on-air, online, on mobile and on your own social media accounts — as soon as possible. Yes, you’ve got to be careful, as RTDNA Executive Director Mike Cavender correctly noted yesterday. But not to do so puts your newsroom at risk of not being the most timely source of vital information when it’s needed most.

So ask yourself: Does my disaster coverage plan include staffers to monitor, verify and report information from social media? Are these staffers savvy about both social media and the basic tenets of journalism? Does my plan include people assigned to use my own social media accounts to report information to viewers, listeners and readers?

If not, you’re already behind on your coverage of the next major breaking story to hit the community you’re obligated to serve.